The Language of Trees, by Steve Wiegenstein (2017)

Wiegenstein portrays the environmental degradation of the Ozarks in his third entry of the splendid Daybreak series, which began before the Civil War with Slant of Light (2012) and continued with This Old World (2014), set during the Ozarks version of Reconstruction.

The woods that cover today’s Ozarks, mostly hickories and oaks, represent second-growth, but in the 19th Century tall, magnificent pines were in great demand for the industrial East. A  rapacious corporation arrives near Daybreak, buys land, builds a company town and a dam, and proceeds to saw lumber. Daybreak has a large stand of harvestable trees, and the corporation wants them. The utopian colony has never quite recovered from the Civil War. Selling the trees means easy money, but they can only be cut once and at a great price environmentally.

Leadership at Daybreak is in flux. Charlotte, widow of James, is the titular head, but she is old and weary and gladly cedes authority to her sons, Newton and Adam. They are the natural heirs, even though Josephine, daughter of Marie and bastard half-sister to the boys, seems to have more talent for administration. Both Newton and Adam have a gift for gab, though Adam fancies himself a poet and is easily drawn in by get-rich-quick talk.

Newton’s weakness is the flesh. One of Wiegenstein’s more compelling portraits is of a free-love cult that moves in nearby, and covets membership in Daybreak. The patriarch pretends friendship with Newton and provides him with one of his concubines, clouding the young man’s judgment and drawing in question his ability to lead Daybreak.

Then there’s J. M. Bridges, the lumber company’s go-to guy, a decent fellow caught up in the late 19th Century’s vision of American primacy and the awesome future industrialization will bring. Bridges is stricken by the cynical Josephine, while she, soured on marriage by her violent stepfather, can’t help but respond to his guileless, clumsy courtship.

Even world-weary Charlotte merits a suitor, a Thoreau-like character who doesn’t try to be a suitor, merely a friend.

Eventually, the machinations of the corporation blow up in violence, but a lot of timber remains, and the corporation remains intact enough to cleverly threaten Daybreak’s trees—and the existence of Daybreak itself. Weigenstein saves some things for the fourth installment, which is in-progress, but The Language of Trees stands alone and complete as the portrait of a transitioning, utopian experiment threatened by base American greed. Still, you’ll want to read the first two volumes. Buy them. Get your library to buy them.

‘Down Along the Piney’ is award-winning story collection set in Ozarks — by Harry Levins Special to the Post-Dispatch — Dec 7, 2018

Writer John Mort of Springfield, Mo., has a special place in his heart for the Ozarks. In 1990, he gave readers a short story collection titled “The Walnut King,” with half the stories set in the Ozarks. In 2011, he produced a novel titled “Goat Boy of the Ozarks.”

And now, he has written another short-story collection, “Down Along the Piney,” which won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction from the University of Notre Dame. The title is a reference to the Big Piney River, which flows northward through south-central Missouri before it empties into the Gasconade. This time, the Ozarks account for eight of the stories — with Ozarkian values like sweaty persistence and weary resignation coursing through each.

Mort’s characters tend toward unhappiness. That tendency breathes sharp reality into Mort’s prose. Take a man named Abraham, resident of a worn-out Ozarks community:

“An outdoorsman, he spent many days away from Red Buck, camping along the Piney River, and in Idaho, he’d tried to find the same wilderness Lewis and Clark had. I think that many times his loneliness nearly drove him insane.

“He’d found no solace touring his origins in Iowa. The farmhouse where he grew up had been gutted and abandoned. He did not recognize the town where he had gone to school, and the school itself was gone. His relatives were dead except for cousins and their children, and they did not know his name. The beautiful girl he almost married before the war had made a bad marriage, divorced, and fled to California.”

Nor do Mort’s stories teem with quirky, O. Henry-style surprises. Much of his prose deals with the drudgery of everyday details, polished by Mort into interesting, sometimes fascinating reading. A sample, dealing with a short-order cook in Florida:

“Up at four and walk to the diner, turn on the lights and air conditioner, brew coffee, tune the radio to classical station from Gainesville, bring in the deliveries of bananas and orange juice and ground beef, stir some eggs for scrambling and omelettes, bring down the ancient waffle iron, turn on the grill. Fix himself bacon and eggs and grapefruit, sit with strong, sugared coffee, read the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald, carefully fold them and put them on the counter along with the Toronto Daily Mail and the New York Times. Plug in his laptop and send a message to his son: Doing fine, sending you some money for your grades. The air force put up a satellite yesterday, what a big firecracker! Say hello to your mother.

“Switch the radio to country and western from Orlando.

“Open the door.

“Ted the Bum came first, promptly at six, but then he’d been up all night and breakfast was his reward to himself. That he’d reached yet another sunrise was reason enough to celebrate, but he was sober in the mornings, clear-eyed for a few hours.”

Since the decline and fall of magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, the audience for short stories seems to have dwindled to high school and college classrooms. The rest of us can pick up a copy of “Down Along the Piney” to realize what we’re missing.

Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.

Thomas A. Peters review of DOWN ALONG THE PINEY, in Ozarks Watch, Fall/Winter, 2018

Both the Ozarks and the Piney River are at once real and metaphorical places. Two real rivers, the Big Piney and the Little Piney, both flow northward (yes, northward) in a parallel fashion in the central Ozarks region, eventually emptying into the Gasconade River. At unexpected moments throughout the stories in John Mort’s prize-winning new book, the metaphorical Piney River glimmers from the pages, often in startling ways. In one story, the Piney flows into a “great inland sea.” That’s a stretcher, because neither Piney has been dammed. Although the book’s subtitle declares that these are “Ozarks Stories,” many of them are not actually set in the real Ozarks, for the most part. But most have ties to the metaphorical Ozarks, perhaps best perceived as a state of mind.

Mort’s new collection of thirteen short stories is published by the University of Notre Dame Press. Nine of the thirteen stories have appeared previously in literary journals and anthologies, and several of them, including “The Hog Whisper” (see below), which won a 2013 Spur Award, have been honored on their own. The book as a whole is winner of the 2018 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, which is sponsored by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English at Notre Dame. If, like me, you are wondering who Richard Sullivan was, here’s the answer from the English Department’s website:

Richard T. Sullivan graduated from Notre Dame in 1930 and joined the University’s faculty as a writing instructor in 1936. In addition to writing numerous book reviews for the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, he published several short story collections and novels, including The World of Idella May, The Three Kings, Summer After Summer, The Dark Continent, and First Citizen. A popular undergraduate teacher, he is remembered for his description of writing as ‘hard work requiring patience and idiotic perseverance.’ He died in 1981.

What animates most of these stories are the characters looking for something from life that they cannot quite articulate and have not yet found or attained. Not money, mind you. Love would be a four-letter word describing what many of these characters seek. Strained and broken relationships abound. In advance praise for this collection, author Shann Ray describes Mort’s stories as “exquisite and lush in the desert of America’s failed attempts at intimacy.” Many of Mort’s characters long to escape and make fresh starts, which is a recurring theme in American literature, from Huckleberry Finn to the Little House books. For example, in “Mission to Mars,” the main character Brad shouts as he witnesses the launch of a Mars mission, “Oh lift me, lift me up….Take me up!”

Many of these stories are gritty, but this collection is not part of the “Ozarks noir” genre currently in vogue. Very little meth, moonshine, or monkeyshines occur in these stories. All of the characters, male and female, are interesting and engaging. In “The Hog Whisperer,” Carrie Kreider sympathizes with hogs, who are often understood as demonic pariahs. Carrie finds fulfillment of sorts in figuring out a method to make hog shit from CAFOs smell sweet.

The thirteenth story in this collection, “The Hidden Kingdom,” is my favorite. It is whimsical and fanciful, but it also resolves most of the disappointment, anguish, and parcels of vain strivings tied up in the previous dozen stories. Eddie is frustrated, bored, and hungover with a dead-end job (“Oh, the curse of a world in which everything is known! Where there’s only sex and bad food, jobs you sleep through, and people you wear out in four months. Surely, there’s more, but I can’t see it!”), but he achieves a hillbilly nirvana by using his lottery winnings, divided into small bundles secured with butcher paper, to escape from the south side of Valdosta, Georgia, and a string of four-months-max girlfriends, as well as a phantasmagoric string of neon retail hell, culminating with a night spent in a motel near Graceland in Memphis coupled with an early-morning Elvis sighting in a Piggly Wiggly, to the Ozarks. There Eddie finds peace, meaning, and fulfillment in his life, meets a schoolteacher, and their relationship continues strong well past the four-month mark.

Highly recommended